The Futility of Hatred
A Meditation on Jonah 3: 1 -10
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church January 21, 2018
My great aunt, Aunt Maurine had a parrot. I never got to meet this parrot, but supposedly she acquired it in New Orleans, having rescued it from sailors. This parrot, who went to live with her in Memphis, knew some language which she never repeated, he had a marvelous and somewhat devious sense of humor, and he loved to sing.
His favorite song was “Way Down Upon the Sewanee River,” but he never just sang it straight through. First, he had to get ready. He would grab his little swing, and hang upside down. He never sang “Sewanee River” right side up. Always upside down. And he never just sang the song. First he had to tune up. He had to find just the right key. So he would start our singing, “Way down upon the Sewanee River…” but it wouldn’t be right. If he sang at that pitch, he wouldn’t be able to hit all the notes. So he would shake himself out a little, and start again. “Way down upon the Sewanee River…” but again, it just wouldn’t be right. He would repeat the process until he was happy, and then sing the song all the way through.
I think Jonah could have learned something from my great Aunt Maurine’s parrot…Jonah, a very, very sad little prophet, knew all the words to the songs of God. He even seemed to know the tune. He could even sing from the belly of a fish, which I at first I wondered if it might have the same effect as singing in the shower (which I know you do!!), but then I realized that all that squishy fish tissue would have been too many soft surfaces. No wonderful echoing effects…
Yes, Jonah knew the lyrics, and he knew what mercy sounds like…so it must have been something else that caused him to stumble over God’s song of mercy and compassion.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This story comprises four brief chapters in the Old Testament. Please take time to read it all the way through. It is fabulous, fabulously funny, and deeply touching. But, since we don’t have time to read the whole thing right now, let’s hit the highlights.
You need to know the essentials, so here is the cast list:
- Jonah, a Hebrew, called to be a prophet
- A bunch of sailors (not sure if they had a parrot!), who become believers in Yahweh
- A very large fish, which is sent, not to punish Jonah, but to save him.
- The King and people of Ninevah, that notoriously, wicked city. (And as a side note, Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, known today as Mosul. Not only were Assyrians the sworn enemy of the Hebrew people, but neither did they worship Yahweh.
- And, finally, A very hungry worm
One day, God speaks to Jonah, giving him extremely clear instructions. Go to Ninevah and tell them to clean up their act or they will be destroyed. For the reasons I named above (that whole sworn enemy thing), Jonah takes the first boat he can find to Tarshish. Tarshish was in the exact opposite direction, a lovely city on the coast of Spain. Instead of a taking a mission trip, Jonah seemed to think God wouldn’t mind if he took a vacation instead. Jonah is the perfect example of the un-disciple. When Jesus calls fishermen to go with him, they drop their nets, leave their boats behind and follow. Jonah, well, not so much.
And God did mind. God had not scheduled any vacation time for Jonah right now, so to get this wayward disciple back on track, God sends a storm. A terrible storm. Despite his stubbornness, Jonah recognizes God’s voice in the storm. In a moment of clarity, he insists on being thrown off the ship so that the innocent crew will not drown. The waves settle, the ship, with its anxious crew, sails on its way. As Jonah sinks down, to what he expects to be his certain death, a fish swallows him up, and there, Jonah stays for three days. His own private, slimy, icky, prayer chapel. All alone, in the darkness, he sings to God.
I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me.
From the belly of the underworld I cried out for help;
you have heard my voice.
When I felt my life slipping away, then, O Lord, I prayed to you,
and in your holy Temple you heard me.
Those who worship worthless idols have abandoned their loyalty to you.
But I will sing praises to you; I will offer you a sacrifice
and do what I have promised. Salvation comes from the Lord!”
He finishes his prayer song, the fish spits him out, God speaks again (same message!) and this time he follows the road to Ninevah, where he will make his three day trek through the city. I’m certain he would have preferred to mumble, but he shouts, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
“And just who is going to attempt that?” the Ninevites might have thrown back at this stranger. Who was this oddball Hebrew? Outsiders feared the Ninevites. Outsiders respected Ninevite power. Overthrow! Who is he kidding?
Unlike so many other prophets, Jonah does not tell them what they are doing wrong, or that it is the Lord God, Yahweh, who is unhappy with them. He doesn’t tell them how they should be living. Instead, he just walks through the city, shouting, “Just 40 days more…well 39 now…and Ninevah will be overthrown!”
Someone believes the message. Someone puts on sackcloth and begins to fast. Others join. The king hears about it and he is moved by this message. He proclaims that everyone, including the cows and sheep, will wear sack cloth and will fast from eating and drinking. (Can’t you see all those repentant little cows and sheep walking around in goat hair coats?) He urges everyone to pray to God, in hopes that God will hear their prayers and renew them to life. They turn from their violent state, the word violent used here typically referring to “abusive exploitation that the strong work against the weak.” (Texts for Preaching, p. 117) Exploitation – one of God’s pet peeves.
Jonah had not told the people what God would do if they changed their ways. He had not offered them any promises of God’s blessings. No promises of a sure, bright and powerful future. But something in the shortest sermon ever preached – “Just 40 days more and Ninevah will be overthrown!” – inspired them to repent. Something in that terse homily touched the truth that they had been living.
And Jonah? I can’t imagine there is a preacher alive who wouldn’t be overwhelmed, (ecstatic) at the possibility of saving an entire city with nine little words. Not Jonah. Jonah did not want his enemies rescued. That’s kind of the point of calling them enemies. You want bad things to happen to them. You want them to be overthrown, destroyed. Obliterated. But God doesn’t. Even though they were the enemies of the Hebrew people, they were also God’s children.
Jonah sits down outside of Ninevah. He picks a good spot, builds a shelter, pops some popcorn, and waits to see what will happen. He waits for God to hurl a fireball at the city, or a hail storm, or maybe even an angel of death. But God sends none of those, and it appears that God has spared the city. Jonah prays:
“Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. 3 Now then, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.” (CEV)
The depth of God’s mercy, a mercy that transforms enemies into friends, is beyond the scope of Jonah’s understanding. How could God love the Hebrew people, and the enemies of the Hebrews? But how could God love Jonah, who ran away from God, who didn’t want to do anything God asked him to do? How could God not only forgive Jonah, but rescue Jonah, encourage Jonah, comfort Jonah…Jonah, who behaves over and over like a spoiled child.
Had Jonah forgotten the song he had sung while inside his fishy prayer closet? Had he forgotten these words:
“Those who worship worthless idols have abandoned their loyalty to you.
But I will sing praises to you; I will offer you a sacrifice and do what I have promised. Salvation comes from the Lord!”
Jonah had created an idol. He had created an idol out of hatred, and he had permanently bowed down before it. He may have had any number of undeniable reasons to worship this idol, to cling to a hatred of the people of Ninevah. It also may have been for that very reason that God sent him there. When Jonah walked through the streets of that hated city, he must have had blinders on. How else could he have resisted having compassion for someone there? Anyone? What a stubborn, stubborn fool. He had the opportunity to expand his circle of care, his circle of community by an entire city, and he chose not to.
Or perhaps he had forgotten the song’s purpose, which was to reconnect him to God…the God of love.
I don’t know. Maybe he had forgotten the words. Maybe he had forgotten the tune. But worst of all, he had forgotten how God sees the world. Maybe what he needed most of all, was to hang upside down from his tiny perch in the world, and try to see the radically reversing, upside down and backwards, illogical mercy of God. Maybe then he would have found it possible to sing God’s song anew.
Read the story of Jonah for yourself. Read the story of Jonah with a tender heart and an open spirit because this side of Jesus, you won’t find a story with more conviction about the wideness of God’s mercy. This side of Jesus, you won’t find a story more compelling in its assurance that God is a God of second, third and even endless chances. God’s love knows no limits. That’s the wonderful-terrible truth of it all. Thanks be to God. Amen.